Janel Meindersee. Photo: Jessica Kaminski.
“The dancers are back!” There was a chorus of this phrase ringing through the office Monday morning when the dancers returned to the studios after taking a week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. Now they’re heading into their final week of rehearsal before we open The Nutcracker next week Saturday. This year there are four rotating casts in Michael Pink’s adaptation of the holiday classic. And just like every year, he is using this show to give a few dancers their first opportunity to be featured at Milwaukee Ballet.
Janel Meindersee is one such dancer. She joined the Company last year, coming to us from Nevada Ballet. She may not have been featured yet, but you're more familiar with her than you think. She's the poster girl of this year's campaign, on billboards all around town. It's good she got to try on the Snow Queen costume because she'll be donning the tiara for this year's production. “This year I am especially excited to perform Snow Queen. Having rehearsed the part as an understudy last season, it has been very rewarding to come back to the role this year knowing that I will be bringing it beyond the studios, and onto the stage.”
Janel began performing in the show when she was 14 years old as one of Mother Ginger’s children. She was actually cast as a boy because of her height. “The Nutcracker had me hooked, and was hugely influential in my desire to be a professional ballet dancer,” she says.
Since then, she has appeared in three different productions, and last year danced Michael Pink’s variation for the first time. She notes, “Michael Pink's Nutcracker has come to be my favorite yet. It focuses on telling the story, and because of that it is captivating the whole way through.”
Mengjun Chen is also getting his first featured role this season. He came to the Nancy Einhorn Milwaukee Ballet II Program the beginning of last season. He was promoted part way through the season and even understudied Marc Petrocci for last season's finale of Peter Pan. He was briefly featured as the cheeky, quick footed waiter in La Bohème. Mengjun will dance the role of enthusiastic, though sometimes naughty, Fritz.
“He’s kind of funny. Sometimes he’s kinda mean to Clara but I think he loves her, along with his whole family,” he says. “It makes me think about my childhood. Fritz is around 11 or 12, so it lets me go back to that age. Everybody wants to return to their childhood.”
He adds, “The Nutcracker in China isn’t as big of a tradition, but here, it’s one of the most important parts of the year, so I’m very excited about it. This is my first time in a big role with Milwaukee Ballet. It’s exciting. I hope I can do it well.”
Mengjun notes Marc Petrocci and Barry Molina (who have both played the role before) have both been instrumental in learning the show. “They’re very helpful for me because there are so many details, and we don’t have too much time to rehearse. I watch what they do, and they help me with the music and the details. They’ve done it before, so they know how to play the phrase on the stage and they tell me about a lot of it and it helps me.”
While Timothy O'Donnell was featured as Marcello in La Bohème earlier this season but this will be his first time in Michael Pink's interpretation of the holiday classic. Tim will be the magic man, Drosselmeyer. “Drosselmeyer is just such a fun character,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like the character takes over me and I just go along for a VERY fun ride! The most challenging thing would have to be the magic tricks, or more accurately, staying in character while doing the magic tricks!!!”
This will be Tim’s fourth different production of The Nutcracker, and he notes, the largest. “When I first saw the production on video I was blown away by the sheer scale of the production. There are so many moving, flying, and even exploding bits of set!”
This is Annia Hilalgo’s ninth interpretation of The Nutcracker. After an impressive turn as Musetta in La Bohème, she will be taking on the role of Marie. Annia notes she enjoys the storytelling in Michael’s interpretation. “It’s more theatrical than the other’s I’ve done,” she says. “It allows me to feel more freedom of movement.”
Though challenging, Annia is especially drawn to playing Marie. “I like how the character of Marie is young and new to the world. She finds love for the first time, and everything is magical,” she explains. “The challenge for me in this role is to try and keep the character’s perspective while still executing very technically demanding steps and partnering lifts, many of which I’ve never done before.”
You can see these fantastic four dancers, along with the rest of the Company, Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir in The Nutcracker, running December 8-26 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.